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Iowa’s Pocahontas, a Pocahontas As Close to the Real Amonute As Any… Not Very

The statue of Pocahontas near Pocahontas, Iowa.
James Schaap
The statue of Pocahontas near Pocahontas, Iowa.

Very little truth is known about the young girl Amonute, who we call Pocahontas. But her image tells us much about the culture that continues to create it.

If you want a good shot on our own Pocahontas, drive up from the south. It’s gravel, but seeing her emerge from the corn is too good a treat, as well it should be.

For the record, the real Pocahontas never did grow old, died when she was 21 in jolly old England after moving there with her husband, John Rolfe, who, by the way, has a town--or had a town--named after him, also in Pocahontas County, Iowa. Isn't that sweet? Our own Pocahontas and Rolfe just a bit east.

Cornfed Pocahontas is statue-esque, tall and thin and trim, with an exceedingly wide and tall face, huge startled eyes, and not even a suggestion of a smile. She's tentative, maybe even a little angry about her bushels per acre.

Pocahontas's Pocahontas greets visitors here because in 1850, John Howell, a Virginian serving in the Iowa State Senate, thought it would be grand to honor her by naming one of the new counties in far northwest Iowa after her. He'd be pleased, he said, "to have the name of Pocahontas, the Indian princess of Virginia, remembered," as she has been since before the 25-foot cornfed growler was erected in 1954.

Mythic Pocahontas is far better known than she is, even after the Disney film. Legends claim that by pleading for his life, Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith a split second before his brains would have been spilled over a pair of rocks. Thus, she jumped between warring cultures to save the man she loved. My word, who wouldn't love that story? Not a smidgeon of critical race theory there. No sir. Vintage Americana.

History says all of that likely didn't happen. Pochie was 11 or 12 years old when the swashbuckling captain went deep into the forest outside Jamestown. Some stories of Native origin claim she was abused, even raped, then pirated on board a ship and sent to England with her English husband, a man named Mr. John Rolfe.

True story? All doubtful.

What is true is that the guardian angel Pocahontas was much desired by white folks, who were willing to do most anything they could to steal her away from her "savage" family, specifically her father, who happened to be chief. Even during the girl's own life, she was more iconic than human. When our Donald Trump wanted to dim the Presidential chances of Elizabeth Warren, he called her "Pocahontas," a smear of limited historical significance but immense cultural heft.

Just exactly what Pocahontas was, what she stood for, what were the circumstances of her life and death, is not likely to be revealed by sleuthing. What we do know is that Senator Albert J. Shaw, who lived in a county township, Powhatan, after Pocahontas's father, determined a statue in her honor was appropriate for the new county; and during the summer of 1956, she went up. Just 25 years ago, Disney tried to make a movie from a life obscured by time and interpretations. It didn't go well.

No matter. If there weren't a Pocahontas, we'd conjure one from our dreams—a beautiful guilt offering who brought us together, whether she did or not, right?

It would be nice, wouldn't it, to just wish her our best: may she rest in peace, because the poor child hasn't--that's for sure.

Maybe that's why she seems such a grouch.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
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